Tripoli’s medieval treasures falling into neglect
Tripoli, Lebanon - A l-Khanqa Khan was built in medieval times to provide shelter to poor widowed women. Today, it is run by the Sunni Muslim religious endowments but still harbours destitute women.
Khan al-Tamathily, another caravanserai dating to the Mamluk epoch, is occupied by squatters and poor families. It had been originally built to host consuls and ambassadors visiting the once-thriving Mediterranean port city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
The two edifices are among more than 300 historic buildings, including the Crusaders’ Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, which make Tripoli’s old city a living museum. Erected next to a cliff, Tripoli’s old town is an entanglement of alleys, exhibiting a wealth of souks, mosques, churches, madrassas, khans and hammams (Turkish baths).
It is also a neglected cultural treasure that is falling into ruins, observed journalist Ghassan Rifi. “Tripoli boasts historic landmarks which, if preserved and built on in a proper way, would enable the city to play a major role in culture-based tourism in Lebanon and contribute to stimulating the sluggish economy.”
“Unfortunately, the Lebanese government has turned its back on Tripoli,” Rifi said. “International sides, including the Germans, Spanish and Turks, undertook a few initiatives to restore some historic landmarks but the largest part of the city’s heritage suffer from dilapidation and theft.”
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is the second most significant Mamluk city after Cairo. It was controlled successively by the Assyrian empire, the Persian empire, the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the caliphate, the Seljuk empire, Crusader states, the Mamluks, the Ottoman empire and France.
Historian Khaled Tadmori pointed out that most existing buildings were erected under Mamluk rule. “More than 750 years ago, the Mamluk dynasty seized Tripoli from the Crusaders, destroying the city that existed on the seaside and moved inland where they built a new city around the Mansouri Great Mosque, including the specialised souks and the hammams, which still exist today,” he said.
Khanqa Khan is an example of the endangered monuments. Located in the heart of the old city, it was built by the Mamluks as a caravanserai and used as housing for needy widowers under Ottoman rule.
The 12-room facility built around an inner court is accessible through a narrow alleyway that leads to the stepped porch. The old decorated entrance door was dismantled by thieves and many of the khan’s walls are cracked, allowing rainwater into the rooms where dozens of disadvantaged women live.
Oum Jamal has been living in Khanqa for 36 years. She says the state of the place has deteriorated tremendously since she first arrived. “Life has become extremely difficult. Everything has changed,” she said. “There was a water pond in the central court and clean toilets but today humidity and rust are eating up the walls. The whole place looks like it is about to collapse.”
Samiha Kojok, 70, is another resident of the khan. “I have lived here 30 years because I have no other place to go to. In winter, rainwater is dripping from the roof of my room and in summer we suffocate from the humid heat. But it is better than living in the street,” she said.
A source at the Sunni Muslim endowments acknowledged the deprivation suffered by the khan’s inhabitants. “The restoration of Khanqa is an urgent matter that the government should handle. The endowment is only responsible for providing these needy women with a place to stay,” he said.
The source, who requested anonymity, said the tradition of serving generations of homeless women who have lost their husbands has been maintained. “Conditions for living there is that the woman should be a widow and has no one to support her,” he said. “No men are allowed to stay. Even male children living with their mothers should leave when they become adults.”
Khan al-Tamathily, close to Tripoli’s waterfront, is in no better state. Home for 50 poor families who have been waiting for years for government compensation to be able to move out, the place is also in ruins. Some rooms in the two-storey caravanserai were expanded during the 1975-90 civil war, during which there was an increase in illegal construction and further loss in the harmony of heritage.
Ahmad Hassan, a fisherman, lives there with his wife and four children. “I was raised in the khan and, after my father passed away, I got married and brought my wife. I simply cannot afford to move somewhere else. What I earn is hardly sufficient to feed my family,” he said.
The khan’s present state is hardly reminiscent of its glorious past. Built under the Mamluks, it was turned under Ottoman rule into a hostel for Western consuls following up on marine trade. “The diplomats were accommodated in the upper floor, whereas the large inner courtyard and ground floor served for receptions and parking caravans,” Tadmori said.
With the demise of the Ottoman empire, the khan became a shelter for poor families. “So far, the government has failed to evacuate the residents, despite the danger of collapse and the importance of restoring this precious historic landmark,” Tadmori added.
The old town section of Tripoli is active and lively with its districts and souks having kept their genuineness and dynamism. In spite of a trend to move towards more peripheral residential districts, many Tripolitans live in the old city and actively contribute to its vitality.
The government’s Council of Development and Reconstruction has completed some renovation work in the souks, including a khan and a hammam, but a lot remains to be done necessitating huge funds, which are largely unavailable.